Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shorebirds and Other Coastal Birds

Over the past few weeks I've been focusing my weekend ramblings to coastal beaches and marshes. The South-bound migration has begun for some shorebirds and seabirds, so I've been checking out Coney Island, Dead Horse Bay, Floyd Bennett Field, Gerritsen Creek, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and Plum Beach. Many species of shorebirds and terns are long-distance migrants, so it isn't unusual to see mixed flocks of these birds in July along the coast, especially at the refuge. The refuge's West Pond was breached during Hurricane Sandy and is now a tidal saltwater cove rather than a freshwater pond. To access the Western side of the "pond" it is now necessary to walk counter-clockwise through the gardens towards Pumpkin Patch Marsh.

A couple of visits to Plum Beach weren't very productive, although it was great getting there at first light and listening to all the terns, Laughing Gulls, Willets, Killdeer and some grousing Clapper Rails. This spot is also very good for finding marsh sparrows, in particular, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows. To observe shorebirds here, it is best to visit at low-tide, when the flats are exposed for foraging birds. If low-tide is late in the morning (or the afternoon), human activity chases the birds away. On my last two early morning visits, there wasn't much shorebird activity yet. I did manage to find a Seaside Sparrow at the marsh side of the dunes here.

Calvert Vaux Park, Coney Island Creek Park and Coney Island were also regular spots on my agenda as I searched for shorebirds, terns, gulls and any unusual coastal birds. I had hoped that large areas of open grass at Calvert Vaux Park would attract some "grasspipers". Grasspipers are, technically, shorebirds, but prefer grassland habitats. Upland Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover are two species in that category that I was optimistic might show up at Calvert Vaux. This park also has the added benefit of being surrounded by water, increasing the possibility of locating some migrating shorebirds or seabirds. The only shorebirds seen in the past couple of weeks were Semipalmated Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper. In addition, there were plenty of sleepy Black-crowed and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons hanging around the edges of the coves and on the relics of several sunken wooden barges.

The Northern end of Dead Horse Bay isn't easy to access. One way is to start at Marine Park, walk the entire East shore of Gerritsen Creek and pass through a tunnel under the parkway. The other is to walk from Plum Beach, over the bridge, then down a steep, sandy path to the water. Either way requires a bit of walking, but it brings you to a small, tidal pond in the phragmites opposite the Flatbush Marina. I discovered this spot over the Winter after noticing it on Google Earth's satellite images. It seemed like it could have potential for attracting marsh sparrows, wading birds and shorebirds, especially since there is little or no human disturbance in this area.

On my most recent visit to this area I didn't spot anything unusual, but there was a family of oystercatchers hanging around. Given the lack of humans along this stretch of shore, they most likely nested here.

One odd sighting was of a non-breeding plumage Common Loon. During the Summer months this bird should be in breeding plumage. Other than this delayed molt, the bird seemed healthy and spent most of its time preening close to the shore. At one point it actually rested on the shore. Loons legs are very far back on their body to make it easier to chase fish underwater. The downside is that it makes walking on land nearly impossible, so he never strayed far from the water's edge. Strangely, early August of last year Heydi and I observed another Common Loon in non-breeding plumage at Dead Horse Bay. Maybe it's something in the water.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge really is THE place to go birding around New York in late-July and August. During high-tide, when the bay floods the mudflats (and the bird's feeding grounds), thousands of shorebirds move to the shallow waters and muddy shoreline of the refuge's East Pond. Normally the National Park Service rangers need to open a valve at the Northeast corner of the pond, draining thousands of gallons of water into Grassy Bay and lowering the water level for the birds. This Summer's heatwaves, however, seemed to have lowered the water naturally through evaporation, making the pond's edges passable for birders relatively early in the season - rubber boots are still recommended, though.

Shorebird diversity is still relatively low, with Short-billed Dowitchers and Semipalmated Sandpipers dominating the feeding frenzy. This past Saturday I spent a couple of hours on the East Pond with Bob and Heydi. The highlight was great looks at a Ruff. This rare Eurasian species seems to be showing up at the refuge now every year and this was the second individual in as many weeks. Andrew Baksh wrote about it on his blog, Birding Dude. Perhaps in my lifetime they'll eventually expand their range to include North America...it's a nice dream since they are an incredible looking bird in breeding plumage. After I left on Saturday an American Avocet was discovered on the South Flats of the East Pond. It apparently only stayed for the day as it wasn't relocated on Sunday. One other interesting observation at the refuge was that some of the terns hanging around the pond were very young birds. They appeared to be part of family units and frequently chased the adults, begging for food.

Over the next few weeks I expect to see the number and diversity of birds at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and other coastal areas increase substantially.

Here's my list from the East Pond:

Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis

Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher

Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Sanderling
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Ruff

Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Black Skimmer

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